Monday, June 18, 2012

The Meaning of Imminent

This is my first time doing something like this, so if I am doing something wrong with regards to formatting, style, or substance, please let me know. I'll try to improve as I go a long.  I appreciate the opportunity to present issues amongst a brotherhood of veterans and will try not to squander it.

Two areas that have recently been in the news a lot are drone warfare and cyber warfare. These tools have been the subject of in depth exposes that has included discussion of 'classified' material and is now the subject of a FBI investigation. One wonders what will turn up. I think there are some interesting things to discuss with regards to cyber warfare but for now lets consider how we are using drones in the GWOT.

By in large, the debate on drone warfare has centered on a very specific piece of a very complex problem. The media has focused almost entirely on the issue of whether or not these programs 'work' and are legal. The 'does it work?' piece has been quite constrained, though, to a realm where government and media folks feel comfortable in the debate. They raise the question with the answer already provided to them.

"Yes, despite the queasiness that indicates that we are still moral people, it works" is the sober estimate provided by our sober and serious minded journalists. Their rationale, though, seems to be based on very shallow logic.

To show how shallow it is, I think its necessary to detour to Afghanistan where the commander of NATO recently agreed to tighten the already strict Rules of Engagement in light of civilian casualties caused by Close Air Support. Civilian structures have been close to off limits as targets since McChrystal took over in 2009, but the current commander has made it so that in almost no circumstances can artillery or air strikes be called on civilian structures. The rules were that only when NATO forces were unable to withdraw from a combat situation would they be allowed to initiate an air strike on a house that was filled with the enemy (and potentially civilians). One presumes that this is still the case in spite of the new pronouncements but perhaps not.

Now compare that scenario to one that produced an almost reverent tone from the journalist covering the scenario. A young American pilot is tasked with finding and watching a 'terrorist' in Pakistan for hours, watching him chat with his wife and play with his children. Then when the enemy was all alone, the pilot let loose with a bomb and killed him. Why so reverent? He avoided killing those innocent kids and women and still took out this evildoer in relative isolation and without fear of killing anyone other than the intended target. How great is that? There is just one crucial piece missing, though, from this happy American victory.

What's completely lacking from this story is any sort of threat to any Americans whatsoever. A Pakistani man playing with his kids does not constitute an immediate or imminent threat unless he is simultaneously playing with his children and handling a doomsday device detonator. Presumably, he doesn't have that.

In Afghanistan, a fire mission is liable to be rejected because a civilian structure is within .5km of the intended target even when under an actual attack. In Pakistan, the US government kills people that pose no immediate threat to any US citizens as soon as the kids are out of sight. When it comes to 'signature' strikes, the activity is even more bizarre and troubling. The CIA/military drops missiles on groups of Pakistanis for behaving a certain way in a certain part of the world. This is acceptable because we are at war and these guys pose imminent threats to US forces. But in what way do they do that? There are no Americans for miles, and presumably the Pakistanis do not have drones of their own that they are piloting. So what makes these targets 'imminently' dangerous?

My assumption is that imminent really means expedient. Having personally been on the planning and execution end of an Afghanistan 'imminent threat' I can tell you that there is a high level of scrutiny that goes along with what might be your approaching doom. These attacks in Pakistan lack that approaching-ness. There is nothing sinister about a guy who plays with his kids (unless its in an area where you get attacked from every other day). Perhaps he is a leader or a financier for bad guys, but in what way is that an imminent threat? At most, this represents a strategic target like a factory in World War II. But a man is not a factory or an oil field. A group of guys acting 'suspiciously' is not a artillery park or a rail yard. These attacks are way out of proportion to the degree of threat that they could possibly pose (not even that they actually pose) to any American citizen.

While I am sure that there are legitimate targets nestled amongst the mess of poor decisions, its the basest form of smarmy political legalism which would allow any bureaucrat to push themselves as being a tough guy for this sort of action or that these are all or even mostly acceptable targets. And its only the worst forms of sycophantic journalism that would tolerate this thinly veiled thuggery.

I expect bad decisions from the military and political elites of our nation. I expect journalists, though, to report it and actually point out when the government is doing bad things. These articles report the facts like these sort of actions are ok and they are not. Not for the liberal reason that these actions are wrong and makes more terrorists and not for the conservative reason that they are ineffective and wasteful. Take your pick, I don't really care. There is really no imperative to keep these strikes going besides political expedience. That is the absolute worst reason to be killing people. If it is easier to default to killing someone than not killing them when they pose no immediate threat to anyone in our country, then our democracy will not survive.

This understanding, though, leads down many dark holes of strategic madness which I'll write about later if there is any interest. For now I end with this question, why are we squandering this limited resource on 'strategic individual' strikes instead of giving the drones to more immediate concerns in Afghanistan? I can tell you from personal experience that there are not enough drones to go around in Afghanistan. Soldiers would be alive today if these platforms were being used more for actual combat missions instead of these stupid and morally questionable 'signature' strikes.

My guesses on this matter are all deeply disturbing and while this is a pub of sorts, I'm not sure I'm drunk enough to share them.


  1. PFK,
    Thanks for bringing your experience to milpub.
    My solution has always been-bring the troops home and we end the discussion.
    I'm glad you made it home.

  2. PFK

    Welcome aboard. Fine post.

    IMNSHO, the "signature strikes" or "targeted assassinations" are very indicative of how the GWOT has created a new and disturbing arena. We now kill because an individual or group poses a potential future threat to someone or something totally undefined. Or simply wishes ill towards the US.

    Funny thing that we don't do domestic preventive or pre-emptive killing. We don't fly assassin drone missions to spot potential gang drive by shooters.

    OK, back when we fought real wars, we targeted HQs and top leaders. But platoon leaders home on leave? NO. Company commanders home on leave? NO. Battalion commanders home on leave? NO.

    But then, if you are connected to terrorism, you are evil, and evil must be stamped out.

    Fear sure elicits some extreme behavior. I just can't understand how so many people want fear to rule their lives.

  3. Good post PF! Your formatting, style and substance are far better than some of us - better than mine for sure.

    The meaning of 'imminent' is clear cut in my mind and coincides with yours. I think that some confuse it with 'impending' or perhaps 'threatening'. We saw that under Bush Junior where waterboarding was claimed to have saved us from imminent threats. Poppycock in my military mind!!!

    Drone air-to-ground attacks against individuals in wars of this type seem to be counter-productive. Don't they generate more blowback? The other side attributes unmanned warfare to cowardice on our part and it gives them more volunteers and propaganda victories. On the other hand I admit to having no qualms against assassination of enemy leadership. Sorry Ranger, my beef is more with method - Neanderthal that I am.

  4. mike,
    I'll kill an enemy or his leader any day of the week.
    The problem is that we have no enemies , contrary to the myth of this phony war.
    This is a legal/police matter based upon international law and it's that simple.
    In the border states in the US civil War there was a lot of killing of soldiers home on leave.

  5. Thanks for your comments gents.

    I'm not opposed to drones as a tool, but its clear to me that they are not being used in a morally or militarily suitable way now (at least in Pakistan).

    To be honest, I think Ranger has the ultimate solution, and anything else is just dancing around the answer to this particular question of what to do with AfPak. But that still leaves us doing these activities in Yemen, Somalia, probably the Phillipines and Libya. We use drones in Iran and Syria, but not for killing yet.

    The solution here, I think, is to halt and then reverse the militarization of the CIA and stop the special forces/spook trend in the military. We are strong enough as a nation to not need to drop bombs in secret. If we need to as a nation wage war, I think we should do it the old fashioned way, have the politicians make up an excuse and then let the people decide to back them.

  6. Welcome PF Khan's-

    A short bio to give us some idea where you're coming from would be nice, just to provide context.

    Agree as to your views on this. I would first add that I find it not so much a question of being "imminent" as being projected as "existential". This "existential" nature of the threat is combined with an abstract identity of the "absolute enemy" which I have mentioned before.

    I find an interesting similarity between your post and one I posted on torture about two years ago:

    The argument for torture was that the supposed threat was of such a magnitude (given the potential of access to WMDs) that anything "to protect the homeland" was justified. That "torture worked" was simply assumed, although I have yet to read an active or former US/allied interrogator - as opposed to torturer - claim that torture is an effective means of intelligence collection, rather quite the opposite.

    Torture is a means of domination, which is why police states employ it . . . My point in the post was that the real question was not about torture at all, but what was behind it, what the acceptance of torture as state policy indicated . . .

    I think this also applies to signature drone strikes or any similar actions that are carried out without an operational/tactical context, that is simply as Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence, has stated, “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

    This brings an interesting link between these signature drone strikes and the torture debate which has rested on many of the same unquestioned assumptions. Is not the resort to these strikes a refinement of the torture policy where any suspects are simply eliminated on sight without any of the preliminaries necessary to conduct torture? Since the US government has (un)officially concluded that torture is not a means of intelligence collection and leads to messy and difficult to explain "excesses", why not simply kill any suspected "existential threat"/absolute enemy within reach?

    Notice that domination as a result is actually enhanced . . .

    What further links the two policies are the assumptions of organized violence as the preferred and most efficient means of applying state power and that the US is a master at wielding violence as an instrument of state policy. Both of which are dubious imo.

  7. Seydlitz,
    Torture and hellfire is vengeance pretending to have a purpose.
    To mike and PFK,
    if any killing needs done in any of the mentioned AO's then let their gov'ts pull the trigger.
    That's democracy.

  8. @ Ranger -

    "My solution has always been-bring the troops home and we end the discussion"


    PFK -

    Field Marschall Kesselring claimed (and was backed up by witnesses) when on trial by the Brits for war crimes against civilians in Italy:

    "As a matter of principle I abstained from the use of bombers which would naturally have been the most effective means [against partisans], because in inhabited places I could not take the responsibility for injury to the civilian population"

  9. Welcome aboard!

    I think we need to make an important distinction between drone use in support of military forces under title 10 authority and drone use by "other government agencies" (OGA's)under title 50 authority. In this post you have, probably unintentionally, jumped between the two and given the impression they are one-in-the-same.

    For instance, I don't think it's correct to compare restrictions on supporting fires in Afghanistan for troops-in-contact situations (who are under imminent threat) to an offensive intelligence-driven, quasi-covert campaign to kill AQ leaders in Pakistan conducted by OGA's and not military forces. Those two situations are very different, operate under different rules and authorities and therefore are not really comparable beyond the incidental fact that drones are involved in both actions.

    That said, I would agree that going after AQ leaders in Pakistan is not about "imminent" threats (unlike responding to forces which are actually under fire) but then again I don't recall anyone claiming that strikes in Pakistan had anything to do with imminent threats. Rather, the justifications given (as I remember them) are more about degrading capabilities in order to prevent attacks in the future.

    In short, our military actions in Afghanistan are very different from our "OGA" actions in Pakistan.

  10. Not enough attention is spent on establishing international conventions on robotic weapon use. Swatting mosquito's today will haunt us tomorrow.

    After all...

    Whatever happens, we have got
    The Maxim gun, and they have not.

  11. Ael,

    These aren't robotic weapons - they are remote controlled weapons, which is an important difference.

  12. I like to think of them as robots in much the same way as I think of the remotely piloted deep sea diving machines as robots.

    But you have a valid point that some people might think of them as autonomous (which they clearly are not).

    The point remains that remotely controlled weapons make great terror weapons. By making serious use of them (in a sledgehammer vs mosquito type scenario) we are raising the desire in others to obtain them. This then implies inevitable proliferation, causing us serious grief down the road.

  13. Andy,

    Thanks for the welcome.

    The Obama Administration would probably disagree with your description of why they are killing AQ in Pakistan. Numerous White House officials have mentioned 'imminent threat' as the legal justification for these sorts of attacks.

    Just look here at a speech by John Brennan on the legal justification for these attacks makes repeated referance to a right to self-defense against 'an imminent threat.'

    This is only a few months ago, and the media has been quick to jump on the bandwagon and repeat this 'imminent'/'immediate' threat that we face from Pakistani based militants.

    I think because of that that there is a basis for comparison between Afghan drone strikes and Pakistani ones. Even if they are not always covered under the same legal authority (OGA does plenty in Afghanistan), the rationale behind them is the same.

    This is, therefore, a waste of resources. Soldiers in Afghanistan would benefit a great deal from these tools being freed up for actual 'immediate' threats. And while I understand that the 'degraded capabilities' argument is probably how most of the military views it, Afghanistan is clearly in real bad shape and has been in critical shape since 2009 which is when the drone strikes peaked. Evidence has not been very forthcoming on how this has actually made any specific American any specifically safer.

    I think until that 'classified information' is released, all the OGA work going on in Pakistan should be viewed with broad skepticism in its effectiveness. Although, frankly, I'd be relieved to know that every attack has prevented world war III and we are that good.

  14. seydlitz89,

    short short bio is I'm an Afghan war vet who is no longer in the Army. If you want more, I'm happy to expand upon my experiences by email, but I'm not super excited about doing so in public. I'm a private person.

    I think you are on to something which very much bums me out. There is a profound imbalance between what we are concerned about and what is real. Terrorism just doesn't pose an immediate or existential threat, and hasn't really ever done so. But its been ten years. How do we disengage from a threat that is stubborn but not that serious?

    Torture and drone strikes at wannabes come into play because our government is frustrated at a lack of progress in our wars. And in any and all wars, when the solution isn't quick and painless both sides tend to go nasty. It usually doesn't work, but it makes people feel better (except those on the recieving end of nastiness). America has been at war too long, we aren't winning, but we also aren't really losing. Stalemates are great places for those too clever individuals to propose quick win solutions. First it was Chlorine Gas, now its drones and cyber attacks.

    I will say that your comments about the 'organized violence' piece has made some stuff click about a number of issues. I might write something about it, but we'll see if I can still remember it later :).

    Thanks for the response.

  15. Another thing worth considering is that these strikes may well be worth the doing for the agencies in and of themselves regardless of the actual strategic benefit they may provide.

    Military funding, especially in an "operations other than war" setting, especially for a very large and powerful nation, may become an end. I'm not saying that the agencies and individuals SEE them as an end - I'm sure they look at this stuff and think "I'm fighting the Good Fight against terrorism".

    But programs tend to take on a life of their own. Particularly when there's little oversight. Especially when they're "off budget".

    So I wonder how much of this drone war has taken on a life of its own because of it provides a tangible benefit in terms of heft and funding in D.C. for the groups involved? As seydlitz says, the actual and potential harmful consequences are far away in space and time, and the benefits - in terms of domestic publicity, bureaucratic success, and tangible "results" (i.e. dead targets) are here and now.

  16. PF Khans,

    I stand corrected on what officials are actually saying. I guess I should pay more attention.

    However, even if the rhetoric is similar, the actual actions on the ground are very different, the ROE is different, the command authority is different, etc. For example, the scenario in your post where a drone pilot watches then kills a "terrorist" in Pakistan would play out quite differently in Afghanistan.


    No doubt there is some, or a lot, of that - bureaucratic interest is always a consideration. I would chalk most of it up to expediency though.

  17. Welcome PFK.

    I, too, am concerned about the status of reportage today, such as it is ("I expect journalists, though, to report it and actually point out when the government is doing bad things.")

    Even our finest papers seem collusive with one political group or the other. Worse are the pseudo news agencies like HuffPo which seem rudderless, stories often reading like they came from a PR hack. This is the new face of a journalism which can no longer afford to maintain its disinterested posture.

  18. PF Khans-

    "America has been at war too long, we aren't winning, but we also aren't really losing."

    Agree as to being at war for too long, but I would phrase the second half differently. We have lost two wars strategically - Iraq and Afghanistan - but in the latter remain involved operationally. Iraq was a bust probably as early as the summer of 2003, but we were able to remain operationally involved far beyond that date although the chance of strategic success (attaining the actual war goals) had evaporated. By remaining on the ground operationally we avoid having to admit the reality of our strategic failure, but without influencing the actual outcome. Smoke and mirrors . . .

    Btw, if you are expecting any sort of optimistic views of our recent military adventures or the direction of US politics/society in general, you've probably come to the wrong place. On the other hand you will find open and sincere appreciation for clearly articulated and reasoned argument such as yours. In other words it's a pretty good old bar . . .

    My email contact is

  19. The thing is, Andy, I'm not sure there's any sort of real "expedient" gains here. Or, if there are, they are buried in Rummy's old aphorism about how we don't really know whether we're winning more than we're losing; the overall effect of these deep strikes has to about as close to old Snowflake's "unknown unknowns" as you can come.

    I'll agree that they're expedient in the "domestic politics" sense, though, and that may well be all that's required of them in the short term.

    But in the geopolitical sense I think of these as kind of "breaking-windows-with-gold-bricks". We can do it because we're a) so damn rich it's ridiculous and b) isolated from the blowback by two oceans. I'll buy PFK's insistence that it's teaching us bad habits, but when has that ever stopped us before?

  20. Andy,

    I def know what you mean by the difference in ROE. My unit had eyes on a major HVT in our AO and could not get permission to engage because of children in the area and other structures. I think that was the right call personally, but it made everyone pretty mad, and when I hear that under similar circumstances in another country against some yokel who hasn't got American blood directly on his hands, I think that the system is back assward if you know what I mean.


    Yeah, I think you are absolutely right. That's why I think the first move has got to be to stop the expansion of these programs. Whatever is in place is the maximum we should go to. Not saying that will happen, but that's got to be the start.


    I feel like a major issue that the media has is a complete and utter lack of perspective. They're all running from one topic to another accepting whatever anyone ever says to them. Half the stories even have all the pieces, they just fail to make the sorts of connections that are meaningful. It's almost as if we are plagued with propaganda on one hand and discordant facts on the other, neither is helpful in creating an informed citizenry.


    I think America has completely decoupled its military interventions from its politics (as evidenced by the expansion of the war not being an issue in the 2010 election and not being an issue in the 2012 election). If we take the Clauswitzean idea that war is politics by other means then what we see is a war we cannot possibly lose. We are so much richer and more powerful that our enemy has no hope of actually forcing us off the field and provided we are willing to maintain the token force we have overseas and let someone else bear this burden, the US isn't really going to quit the field. We can't lose. We just also can't seem to win. Our decoupling of politics and war has not actually led to any efficiency or capacity to win our conflicts. So in essence I agree, Iraq was lost before it was started, but in a traditional sense, Afghanistan is an unwinnable/unloseable conflict more akin to the sorts of tribal conflict that was practiced for centuries where the point wasn't to win but to provide a political stability to the tribal leaders. Afghanistan isn't about winning or losing, its about making sure that our people know that our politicians are 'tough' and 'strong on defense' and whatever. That's what I meant by not 'really losing'

    I'll try and hit you up tomorrow by email, but I've always appreciated an honest debate over a circle-jerk.

  21. Chief,

    I mean that drones are an expedient method compared to alternatives for killing/capturing AQ leaders. Their main advantage is that, for some reason, many people consider them to be less politically sensitive than, for example, manned aircraft. So states like Pakistan and Yemen are willing to let us fly them over their airspace and most people consider airspace violations by drones to be less a breach of sovereignty than a manned aircraft would be. It would be interesting to know what we'd do if that wasn't the case.

  22. PF Khans-

    The Afghanistan war is "loseable", we have already lost it strategically, but as long as we remain operationally involved we can pretend that it can still be won militarily. The cost of that war is now over 1/2 $trillion and counting. Remaining operationally committed is not sustainable in the longer term.

    I also don't think we have "decoupled" war from politics, that simply isn't the case since the nature of war is basically political, what we have lost is any connection between organized violence and it serving as a instrument of rational policy . . . which is something different.

    Our wars, as confused and corrupted as they are accurately reflect our true political relations . . .

  23. Woohoo, another khan!


    The thing I just wanted to comment on is the political view of "combatants" vs "non-combatants."

    In the past, the combatants were labeled as, well, "Combatants" or "Enemy forces" or "Opposing forces" or "Para-military", "terrorist forces" or the new meme, "Militants" of which is the new meme...but, lets get to that in a moment, first, more clarifications of 'personages' in the field of strife.

    And in the past non-combatants were labeled, "non-combatants" "civies" "civilians" and "innocents" all of which were employed by specified politico's for propaganda purposes...ergo, information control.

    Today, we have that aforementioned meme, "militants" which of course comes because we, we being our political and military leadership have pretty much beat the fuck out of "terrorist" forces in the media, and it kind of draws into question the mentality of our aforementioned leadership when they say, "Booyah bitches, we just took out a Terrorist enclave!"

    And the news media reports:

    "Fuck yeah! American Drones just took out a family of nine including two cousins who were loosely associated with the librarian of the town who supplied books to the child of an Al qaeda leader!"

    That got rather messy, our aforementioned leadership looked like what they were, the dumbest tools under the sun, and so...redefine the area..."militant control" and voila...that family of nine and the two cousins are no longer "a family of nice and two cousins."
    They are now MILITANTS!

    Oh yeah, so you see, instead of saying "We just took out a terrorist enclave!" they say, "We engaged militants in a hostile area under militant control" which sounds all cozy and wonderfully just in a warlike manner.

    So no longer can we use the term "GWOT" ergo, the Global War on Terrorism" for now it's the "GWOM"
    Global War on Militants!

    In short, Drones are just machines, and the guys flying those machines are just the buttons for the men standing behind them making the decisions on which button to push.

    Today's war is like what the movies always foretold it would be back in the 70's and 80's...a button pushing form of war.

    The only thing those old timey movies got wrong was the weaponry being employed.

  24. sheer-

    You raise a good question: Exactly who are we at "war" with?

    Just about anyone can qualify to be the "The Enemy" under the current logic.

    "Kill them all and let God sort it out"?

  25. PF, welcome to the fray. Thanks for pointing out your understandable bias at the end of your post. As one of those "deeper, darker, spookier" SOF guys who has had concern with PK, Somalia, Yemen and other places, I got my own biases as well :)

    Andy, thanks for pointing out the T10 vs. T50 use of the drones, you stole my thunder. For those that aren't aware, there are constraints that restrict the number of drones that can be flown around the world, and no amount of money or number of platforms delivered can fix that. This causes a natural friction between T10 and T50 missions, as PF points out (his preference for drones flying in support of T10 military actions in AF). More direct drone support in AF would provide real time, tangible support saving US service members vs. striking alleged threats that when neutralized results primarily in lots of immediate gratification, high five'ing, fist bumping. Careers are made, budgets are justified. (and to be fair, some decent effects on the targeted network from time to time).

    FDC, you hit an important point. OGAs were told to "get on board", and asked, "What have you done for the GWOT lately." Drone strikes are a great way to "get some scalps." (and cheap way). It really briefs well, especially when favored metrics of the day include "killed/captured" and "X number of days since last terrorist attack on America." You can't argue with that!!! Bad guys dying, and no attacks on the home land? Why are you guys criticizing this policy????? (sarcasm, for those who missed it)

    One last point about the original post as it regards to the media. I love how the media assumes any attack is a "drone strike" any time there is an explosion.

  26. BG,
    I can argue with the statement-how many days since a T. atk'd the homeland.
    Has the military found a way to militarize a crystal ball.?
    I think PFK 's point is that the folks being vaporized are not, and have not been threats to our shores.
    It's nice to hear that you're still kicking.

  27. Thanks Jim. Good to hear from you.

    I agree, PFK's point is that bad guys in PK who are being hit by drone strikes are not "imminent" threats, but I think that PFK's perspective is slightly jaded because he is comparing the strategic intel communities' definition of imminent vs. a tactical warfighter's perspective who sees "imminent" as a bullet that is chambered, sights locked on and finger on trigger. I like your statement earlier, you kill the enemy any time you get a chance to do so, I don't care if he is at home taking a dump. Just because his finger isn't on the trigger, doesn't mean that he isn't a key node in the network. In today's world, he can play with his kids one minute, pick up his phone and send an email the next that gives an order for real trigger pullers to execute.

    The problem I have with the drone strikes in PK is the "whack a mole" approach is not as effective because the network has time to adapt when you take someone out one by one. The ideal situation is more like an FBI sting, where you take out multiple key nodes simultaneously (oh, and like an FBI sting, you have evidence, a court order, etc). But the reality is that in the lawless lands of the FATA, that just isn't a political or military feasible COA. So, they go with what "works" because it is "better than sitting on our hands doing nothing." (yes, we can argue that point, but we would only be arguing with ourselves when we are all in agreement that sometimes doing something is worse than doing nothing due to unintended side effects).

    And no, no crystal ball. But I have a magic eight ball that has seen more combat than most, and it is 100% accurate, about 50% of the time. Not bad for the intel community.

  28. bg,

    Thanks for the welcome but I'm still not sure I understand this piece.

    "the strategic intel communities' definition of imminent vs. a tactical warfighter's perspective"
    I'm sorry, does imminent mean different things? I figured that it was the same across all boards where imminent means going to happen soon. I think the intel community is actually looking at it as though imminent means, "we'll lose our chance to do something about it imminently, so its its either kill him now or risk not having the chance to do it later." I get that and I think there are times when that logic applies, but that does not satisfy the definition of 'imminent threat' in any way. This behavior is barely tolerable in my estimation when there are lives in imminent danger, and it really should have no place in American democracy when the imminent means expedient.

    "Just because his finger isn't on the trigger, doesn't mean that he isn't a key node in the network."
    Look, sure, you can make this claim, but it doesn't make the threat imminent at all. Imminent is a more stringent measure than just being a part of the network, even being a key node in that network.

    I think this is reflective of a disturbing thought process; just because we can kill someone doesn't mean we have the right to or should do so. It appears to me that the default is kill all the bad guys regardless of their capability or true intentions. This is not normal behavior and reflects a hubris which really doesn't reflect reality at all.

    There's a fascinating parallel situation occurring in Turkey on the Iraqi border. The Turks will bomb the Kurdish camps in Iraq as necessary, not on a whim and as a retaliation. Not sure whether or not there are lessons to be learned here, just trying to expand the debate to see if there's something we're missing.

  29. PFK,

    YES, there are different meanings to the word imminent, it is a matter of perspective and context.

    I agree with you about the poor use of "imminent," maybe I should have done a better job of explaining that this since semantics in reporting is one of my pet peeves. As a tactical intel guy who works strategic, national level stuff, I can see it all the time. The problem is this: Inconsistent definitions of terms across the spectrum of intelligence agencies.

    The intel community is terrible about not defining it's terms with consistent, measurable terms. How many times have your heard "probable, likely" thrown around by an intel geek? What the hell does that mean? How do you define "probable?" I promise you if we took a survey about what probable means, the answers would range from 30% to 90% chance. I have a rule, I only talk in terms of percentages, such as 50/50, 80/20, that way there is no way you an misunderstand what I mean when I attach a probability.

    So yes, I think that OGA and strat intel types have a different definition of imminent than the tactical warfighter (or most people). Today, I just read an OSINT report that there is an "imminent" terrorist threat in Kenya.

    (note: You even did it by saying "I figured that it was the same across all boards where imminent means going to happen soon." How do you define "soon", in a few hours, tomorrow, next week? If I am a strat intel guy who looks in terms of months and years, soon can mean in 2013).;_ylt=A2KJ3CQeqedPWgsAJvbQtDMD

    In this case, "imminent" means a probability of an action occurring within a certain time period, as compared to a "fleeting target window." A target window has no bearing on whether or not to strike, it has to do with allocation of resources. Imminent is defined as "in the near future" and restricts travel until "1 July", turning imminent into a week long event. (hey, at least they put a 1 July date, that is a good, measurable definition).

    With all that said, I won't say that we don't strike someone "just cause we can." Stan McCrystal had a rule, and that was constant pressure on the network. Every night, he wanted action. Even if the bad guy who got rolled was just a pipe swinger of no importance, someone important probably knew who he was. And the stress of that kind of nightly pressure has a psychological effect. It can be a strategy. You weigh the risks of unintended consequences (turning population against you) with desired effects on the network. If we don't care about what Pakistan people think (or the govt for that matter), than the risk is low. That is how the math works.

    Hope that better explains my case.

  30. Oh, and as far as the Iraq/Turkey issue. That has been going on forever. A decent analogy to PK, but I think that many of the Kurds being attacked by the Turks are rivals of the Kurds in Iraqi government.

    If you want to open a can of worms, let's talk about Iranian agents conducting an undeclared war on the US using proxies and surrogates in Iraq and Afghanistan to kill American soldiers for the purpose of "death by a thousand cuts" and ensuring Iraq and AF won't be stable bases to launch attacks on Iran. Sounds like our argument, not letting the FATA be a "base of ops" for attacks on America. Of course, have to admit, the Iranians probably have a better case than we do, but their tactics are very similar to ours. Clandestine agents killing people that they deem as "combatants" in a sovereign country. One uses drones with missiles, one uses IEDs. Both are methods of warfare attempting to advance a foreign policy.

    Yes, I just compared our methods to the Axis of Evil ring master, Iran. I guess it is all a matter of perspective.

  31. I think BG is correct about "imminent" being variable depending on perspective but, on the other hand, policymakers like Bremer should know better than to throw the term around without adding some context.

    Still, just as an example for what BG is talking about, one can look back at the pre 9/11 intel assessments (now declassified), and see the word "imminent" was used beginning in late June 2001 intel briefings. As I recall, those filtered down to my, much more tactical level, by early July and I spent the next two months briefing essentially the same thing at each weekly staff meeting - namely that AQ was planning an big attack, that attack would come soon (ie. was imminent), but we didn't know the exact timing or operational details; we expected it would probably take place in Europe or the Middle East but it could occur anywhere.


    As I'm sure you know, there is also a downside to using precise numbers for probabilities since it usually conveys false precision. Personally I like the MLCOA/MDCOA the Army (mainly) uses, but that's got downsides as well. Describing uncertainty in estimates is, unfortunately, an enduring and difficult problem.

  32. Andy,

    The reasons I prefer to use percentages are because:

    1. No way to misinterpret. (I say probable means 50/50, some people think it means 70/30).
    2. You can use math!!! Yes, that is right. For example, most people don't know that if you have two interdependent events, their probabilities affect each other. 50% x 50% doesn't equal 50%, it equals 25%. Therefore, bad intel, bad sources, add up quickly.

    example: " It is highly probable that the enemy will flank to the right (MDCOA), and it if they do, it is probable they will have a platoon of tanks to reinforce. Your HUMINT source has a track record of "has reported very accurately in the past."

    So, what is the probability that you will have tanks flanking right? Based on the text above, you would say at least "probable." What the hell does that mean??? You better dig in!

    Now let's use math.

    Highly probable = 70% (This is how it is usually done in this terrain)
    Probable = 50% (this is how an intel guy admits he doesn't know, its a coin toss)
    Source reliability: 90% (based on reporting history)

    Therefore, the probability of both events happening is only 31% despite the glowing source rating. But if you don't use numbers and do math, you assume that the lowest probability is "probable."

    Yes, these numbers aren't 100% accurate, but they help paint a picture and they also demonstrate that the more variables with low probability that you have, the less likely your COA will happen. Thus, intel is hard.... (this works, if forces your analyst to come up think analytically about how they will determine and defend probabilities, and leaders get used to hearing it after a while, and understand it is just an artist tool, and not a science).

    Back to the thread:

    Imminent should be defined as "within the next X hours/days" or you have to clearly define it as an action that can occur without any additional indicators and warnings (thus, it is open ended time wise) therefore immediate actions must be taken such as x, y and z in order to disrupt the anticipated action.

  33. "It can be a strategy. You weigh the risks of unintended consequences (turning population against you) with desired effects on the network. If we don't care about what Pakistan people think (or the govt for that matter), than the risk is low. That is how the math works."

    And this, right here, is why we lost in Afghanistan, and why we will suffer humiliating indignity after another in the world around us...because we think we can just get away with any form of shit slinging anywhere we think we can.

    All the while wagering with the Law of Unintended Consequences that our actions will never catch up to us.

    btw, I strongly suggest that the entire command, and anybody else in the Military get a crash course in statistics...because personally, I think you all are fucking stupid if you think that you can gamble against the Law of Unintended Consequences by dismissing the nature and character of people...that is a serious mistake, and mistakes of that nature stink like shit, and that shit just piles up like a snow bank high in the mountain, and then one all comes crashing down, burying everything you cherished in a soul crushing, Universal response of "No, fuck you!" poetically inspired karmic justice.

    And we can start, by unassing Afghanistan ASAP.

    Just pack it all up, and bug-the-fuck-out.

  34. Hey, c'mon sheera, the Romans got away with it for like 5 centuries! By 21st Century historical inflation math, that means we should be good for another couple of years.

    Totally agree, leaving Afghanistan is something that should happen sooner than later. As far as the drone strikes.... I just feel like these tactics never worked for the Israelis, and they don't have the option to leave. How in the hell are we going to ever leave/cease strikes and be able to claim victory? No matter when or under what conditions we stop the shenanigans, unless we kill them all, whoever survives will claim victory and their behaviors will not change. So what have we really accomplished??

  35. It all boils down to trying to "quantify" a situation that cannot be quantifiable. However, numbers can appear to make sense, so numbers it is. Two more dead bad guys can make the masses think that that means the number of bad guys has decreased. That's a lot easier to demonstrate than claiming that a "hearts and minds" program convinced 10 Pakistani Muslims that the US should be loved.

    There is, I have come to conclude, a significant element of "theater" in the GWOT. No politician can afford being painted as being soft on the threat of terrorism. That no passenger flying into the US has to take off his or her shoes, no less several other inconveniences suffered in US airports, doesn't make it on the public's radar. And, once inside the "secure area" you have a free pass. Rather, we are reminded that all those indignities have definitely prevented another 9/11 type tragedy, even though the evidence is not as supportive as the claims.

    But we are "whacking moles" with drones, and doing so without putting Americans in direct peril. That these assassinations may be fueling attitudes that will result in future strikes against Americans, at home or abroad, is far too abstract to process. Americans live for immediate gratification, and another dead bad guys is as about immediate as you can get.


  36. BG,

    I think as long as your audience understands that the numbers are just a tool and aren't indicative of a high level of precision, then you're good.

    Also, I think you've identified the biggest feasibility problem with drone strikes and it fits with my general theory that domestic politics are driving our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  37. Interesting discussion. We've mentioned the irrational qualities of the GWOT, US domestic politics and how it drives the GWOT and our tendency to see violence as the preferred/only method to resolve problems, but there seems to be something missing . . .

    Albert Borgmann calls it the "device paradigm" or simply viewing human existence in terms of technological "fixes". Drones really appeal to this, a simplistic technological solution to a complex social reality. Wasting bad guys - portrayed as imminent/existential threats (the link is essential) - at the push of a button . . . what could be wrong with that?

  38. bg-

    Welcome back

    Thanks for commenting.

    I'll have to think about a response to what you have brought up . . . wonderful food for thought . . .

  39. PFK,
    istm that we have 2 threads going here.
    -one is why=you
    -the other is how.
    the how guys seldom consider the why. They talk peter patter with tinny words.
    the thread is talking to each other but not really hearing the other guy.
    Rome fell from within, and we're doing a reasonable impersonation of their act. This is not something to be flip about. We don't have 500 years.

  40. bg,

    Thanks for taking the time to explain your position. I appreciate the intention and am glad to hear that my fear of it being a window of opportunity event is not the primary driver of these events.

    Still, if you asked most Americans if something that could happen in a day or 9 months is imminent, I don't think you are going to get many imminent takers. Especially if the question was, 'are you in imminent danger of an individual who might attack you at some point in next six after he makes a hundred mile trip to your place?'

    Not saying that you don't define it differently, but I am complaining that what you say is imminent is not what the public is percieving it to be and this sort of miscommunication (which is really the media and the administration's fault) is leading to an acceptance rate that is most likely much higher than it would be if this program was discussed in a more honest and open way. For a public that gets their views on terrorism and war more from shows like '24' than real life, if you say imminent, that means within an hour or two.

    This whole discussion had made me very well aware that our governing societal rules are very out of date. Before the 21st century it was ok to do everything and anything to protect against 'an imminent attack' because there were real physical constraints on what was everything and anything. Those constraints are not there and I feel like our governing class has just continued with the previous set of assumptions because it is conventient. I think a new assessment of the situation is in order with a new set of ground rules and a new understanding that just because you can, doesn't mean you should extends to issues like drones and cyber attacks. Unlike internal rules, though, this has to be something that is forced on our government. Think warrants and whatnot. Checks and balances redone for the digital/drone age.

    I mean, it seems like we all are largely in agreement that drone strikes are being exected more for the political convenience than the military wisdom of it in a lot of cases... killing for political reasons... sounds a lot like terrorism, doesn't it?

    Even if the collapse isn't in the 'imminent' future, shouldn't the leading nation of the free world behave in a manner better than that of terrorists and Iran? I know that war tends to blur the lines between combatants and that protracted war makes you more likely to behave ruthlessly and ignore the ideals you had originally, but the guys were killing hardly seem worth America's soul.

  41. Ranger,

    I think there has been some progress on the why issue. Everyone is on the same page about the why now, political convenience. I think the conversation of how is being debated because that's where the the skill set is and my argument cut sideways across the how to piece.

    Ultimately, the how to has to get ironed out, but I've always been the asshole who asked why. Pissed the hell out of my commanders. Still nothing beats the far away look in a man's eyes when he realizes 'oh hell, my plan really was terrible' except maybe the look that indicates the intellectual struggle within the same man about whether to cave in to logic and reason or to push on into the Big Muddy.

  42. PFK,
    It boils down to reality-are we civilized or are we death dealers?
    Democracy cannot prosper or be protected by killing arbitrarily, nor can we be defined as human with such baggage.

  43. "It boils down to reality-are we civilized or are we death dealers?
    Democracy cannot prosper or be protected by killing arbitrarily, nor can we be defined as human with such baggage."

    Dam, I wish I was as concise Jim, thank you!

    Look, like Jim pointed out, our Drones have a limited view of the "target" area, and lets face it, we're all pretty dam familiar with the term Area of Effect.

    Any one who has seen a five-hundred pounder go off knows that the AoE of that puppy extends way beyond just the unfortunate piece of earth that caught it.

    Perhaps, like Rome, we'll grind everyone down to the point where they have just gave the fuck up. Or, the opposite, like the Germanic and Goth tribes, the Afghanis will say, "oh is that how you want to play, alright bitch, game on!"

    The human factor is unknowable until it acts...and so far, it looks like it's been "Game on!"

    We have to remember...they have much simpler victory conditions than we do...and this is a loss, not matter how we play it, say it, or pray about it this whole fucking GWOT has been one colossal fubar loss for our nation.

  44. Just to add to the pile of crazy that is this whole situation.

    "A barrage of cross-border artillery and rocket attacks from Pakistan have forced thousands of Afghan villagers to flee their homes, witnesses and officials in Afghanistan said Tuesday."

    So this whole northeastern part of Afghanistan (Kunar and Nuristan) are Complete No-Go zones for ISAF and ANA. If you do a quick search, you'll find that every five-six months a US or ANA OP/COP/patrol gets overrun or nearly overrun by 100+ fighters.

    Apparently, since the US has abandoned that area, those insurgents are now crossing the border and overrunning Pakistani bases and patrols. Who knew?

    So the situation is that on the Afghan side of the border, there is a lawless area where militants plan and launch attacks across the border and on the Pakistani side of the border there is a lawless area where militants plan and launch attacks across the same border.

    The US started dropping bombs there with drones, Pakistan has decided to just shell the contested areas. Neither one seems to want to fix their own problem and instead meddle in the other's issues. I think this will end well.

  45. sheer,
    I'm concerned about you.
    I'm a swearing sob, but lately you are doing so with gusto and making me look like a piker.
    This has not been your style.
    What's happening?

  46. PFK,
    I think the world needs lawless places.
    Let the region be whatever it wants as long as the people stay there and live their lives in short bursts.
    This thinking is reflective of Turner's frontier thesis of the American Frontier. We historically had lawless areas in the states, so why deny the Afgh/Paks the same consideration?
    Let them hv their chicken shit military training camps. Who cares? It wasn't an AK that brought down the twin towers , nor was it a hand grenade/rpg.
    Our response has been as stupid as was the attacks.
    But we put the rubber military yardstick to the problem.
    BTW, OT-congrats on your initiation.
    Now mike ain't the cherry.

  47. Jim,

    2008 Jim...I trace it all back to 2008.

    I voted for this guy named Obama because he was a sweet talker, charmed me he did.

    Told me all sorts of things about rule of law, our place in the world, and what we should be like as a nation. Made some coy promises too...damn, he had a sugary tongue that one.

    And then, come the day when he was to be sworn in as President of the United States...and what do you know...some motherfucking doppelganger jacked the guy I voted for, and took his place at the swearing in ceremony.

    And son of a bitch it's been fucking turtles all the way down.

    And all I can do is just stare shell-shocked at this thing we call our country and just...I don't know's like history tends be cyclic but usually it goes in a cycle every hundred years or so...not every four years.

    And yet, fuck me, there it is...every four years history is repeating itself.

    It's like were stuck in this unfuckingbelievable Groundhog's day equivalent of a world and the only way out is death...and even then some motherfucker is going come up right behind us and say, "hey, that was a great idea, lets try that again!"

    It seems there is no end to this...seething cess pool of stupidity...and the sad thing is we don't even have to look in the crystal ball anymore because we'll think "dam, I think the ball is broken!" and the reality is, no, no, it's not broken, it's just nothing has, or will change. period.

    So, yeah, I'm just stunned...unbelievably stunned...and all I can do is cuss...because that is what's left in my mind which is registering a shockingly, mind-numbing, can't-believe-this-hasn't-ended-in-flames-yet stupor of disbelief...and yet, there it is, and here we are.

    And the only solution I have is the same solution a person in a burning house would have...fuck the house, it is done for, get out, now!

    So, I apply that to Afghanistan and Iraq, "Fuck Afghanistan and Irag, they're done for, get out, now!"

    Granted, that solution won't bring world peace, long bouts of freaky circus sex, and coca cola commercials of "we are the world," but at least our shit won't be fried to a carbon pile of bony left-overs for someone else to ply through and wonder, "what the fuck happened here, and why didn't this asshole bail out of this doomed house?"

  48. Sheer.
    got it.
    we at raw NEVER bought into the hype.

  49. sheerahkhan,

    I feel your pain. I'm just glad it wasn't McCain because he had been President, I definitely would have gotten extended and done two summers in Afhganistan. And living through two summers is asking a lot in certain areas.

    The craziest piece of this, to me, is that there is a level of knowledge and frustration that feels hard to compare to previous times. Never before have so many people known so much, cared so much, and been absolutely incapable of actually influencing our leaders. Not a good place to be for a democracy or a society in general. These wars are Orwellian, "WAR is PEACE" has never been truer than today.

    When the ought doesn't match up with reality, people can a) change their opinion on what ought to happen (sellout) b) change their reality (tear it all down) or c) change their perception (get blind drunk) or d) try to think about something else.

    None of these options seem very appealing to me.


    I am right there with you. We are so far past stupid with this war its incredible. And considering the irony of Pakistan bombing Afghan mountains because Pakistani Taliban are hiding there to attack Pakistan and the almost complete lack of US news coverage of such events, it seems as though the US military REALLY wants attention anywhere other than Afghanistan. With good reason.

    “For years,” Chandrasekaran concludes, “we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours.”

    Let's chalk this one up to 'we suck,' go home and have a beer.

  50. PFK,

    Agreed about the "lack of perspective" in the media. I see this getting worse due to a number of factors, not the least of which is the sped-up tempo of the media and technology, and even what constitutes media. Journalism is losing respect as the job of reportage becomes increasingly taken over by citizen "journos" often working for free. Quantity of copy trumps quality, and there is no time for historical perspective.

    Sensationalism reigns, as we must make up in wow-value what we lack in contemplation; damn you, John Tesh, and the whole infotainment empire.

    Granted, people have probably always come up shy on the rigor end of things, but today most can barely catch their breath -- FB beckons, you see? We rely on the pundits more, as they have less to offer. Who has the time to cross-check media's pronouncements? Who reads beyond their local paper (the sports section, at that)? Few have the time to read international sources, and those who do are often the ones digesting it for the rest of us.

    So many people are either gullible or indifferent, the latter the safer posture for those interested in not appearing to be dupes.

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